Oral Histories

Interview of Noah Levine

Buddhist teacher and founder of Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society and Refuge Recovery. Author of memoir Dharma Punx.
Series:
Many Branches, One Root: Buddhist Traditions in the Los Angeles Area
Topic:
Buddhism
Asian American History
Interviewer:
Cline, Alex
Interviewee:
Levine, Noah
Persons Present:
Levine and Cline
Place Conducted:
Against the Stream Meditation Center, Venice, California
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alex Cline, series coordinator, UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research; musician; member, Order of Interbeing, Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, ordained 2009 by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.
Processing of Interview:
The interviewer prepared a timed log of the audio recording of the interview. The interviewee was given the opportunity to review the log in order to supply missing or misspelled names and to verify the accuracy of the content but made no changes.
Length:
5.75 hrs.
Language:
English
Copyright:
Interviewee Retained Copyright
Audio:
Series Statement:
The Many Branches, One Root series traces the histories and practices of a range of Buddhist traditions and communities in the greater Los Angeles area. Beginning in the early twentieth century, a succession of Buddhist traditions have put down roots in Los Angeles, each one providing spiritual support and a sense of community for the tradition’s immigrant population. By the late twentieth century many of those traditions had extended their reach beyond their original ethnic base to include an American-born, often largely Anglo, constituency. The series seeks to document the ethnic and immigrant roots of these traditions, as well as the changes that have resulted as traditions have accommodated to an American audience. Series participants included monks, nuns, and lay people from Buddhist traditions from Japan, China, Tibet, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam and a mixture of immigrants and American-born practitioners.
Birth in Garberville, California--Father’s youth and spiritual background--Mother’s family and spiritual background--Parents meet through Buddhist circles--The trauma of a childhood split between New Mexico and California--Early thoughts of suicide in childhood--Finding comfort in substance use--Rebellion against parents' hippie culture and attraction to punk culture--Growing identification with Southern California skate and surf cultures--Parents’ struggle to balance parenting with hippie ideals--Mother’s remarriage--Differences between mother’s and father’s households--Dropping out of high school--Institutionalization in late teenage years--Trying Buddhist techniques and finding relief--Begins studying Buddhism and finds Theravada--Studying under Ajahn Chah monk Ajahn Amaro--Importance of upholding monastic traditions--Acceptance at Insight as Stephen Levine’s son--Pilgrimage through Asian continent--Evolution of personal beliefs during this period--Impact of teachers and influential thinkers.
Differences between religious upbringing of mother and stepmother--Decision to study psychology and mindfulness based stress reduction in college--Mentoring with Mary Orr--Family program at Spirit Rock under Jack Kornfield and Jason Baraz--Spirit Rock teaching training empowerment program--Levine discovers punk peers are interested in his teaching--Levine’s unique style of teaching--Receives teaching empowerment from Kornfield--Writings during training become basis for Dharma Punx--Advice from father to not follow Kornfield and to find his own path--Growth of Levine’s sangha after Dharma Punx is published--Dharma Punx as Levine’s distinct lineage--Development and growth of Against the Stream across the country--Collaboration with other local centers and teachers--Influence of Levine’s recovery experience in his teaching--Meditation, embodied wisdom, and the value of silent retreats--Balancing anti-hierarchal punk values with hierarchal Buddhist traditions--Opening of Refuge Recovery--Production of “Meditate and Destroy”--Influences in conceptualizing Refuge Recovery--Development of Refuge Recovery into a formal institution and program--Early success of Refuge Recovery--Meeting wife, having children, and eventual uncoupling.
Training courses that led to Against the Stream’s first teachers council--Levine’s expectations of dharma teachers and their education--Developing the skill of selecting teachers--Relationships between Against the Stream and local sanghas--Support for Brad Warner--Shifting dynamic at Against the Stream when Levine re-enters the dating world--Events leading up to sexual assault allegation--Learning of the formal allegation--Breaking the third precept--Against the Stream ethics council--Transferring authority of Against the Stream to Joanna Hardy--Allegation from Tova Green--Against the Stream’s handling of the allegations--Levine’s state of mind during the investigatory period--Lack of support from other teachers--Investigation results: no substantive evidence--Fallout at Against the Stream--Experiencing a personal betrayal--Spirit Rock ethics council investigation--Refusal to quit teaching--Spirit Rock’s revocation of Levine’s empowerment to teach--Belief that dharma teachers should not be without flaws--Levine’s personal alterations to Theravada precepts--Finding strengthened belief in the dharma during this period.
Connection between a friend and Levine’s accuser--Changing form of Levine’s practice during this difficulty--Jason Siff’s advice to practice mindfulness--Advice to shield reputation versus the need to speak freely--Aftermath of allegations--Against the Stream’s recovery--Thoughts on cultural trending of mindfulness--Thoughts on secular Buddhism versus traditional practices--Diversity in Buddhism--Respect for hierarchal traditions--Against the Stream’s ethics and reconciliation policies--Reflections on the impact of the allegations upon Levine’s community and reputation--Income through Against the Stream and Refuge Recovery--Belief that dharma teachers should be well supported financially--Importance of ethics and accountability practices in spiritual communities--Levine’s sense that Buddhism is in a state of decline--Appreciation of his legacy in American Buddhism--Optimism for Against the Stream’s future.